Linda Francis has been making paintings and drawings since the early ’80s using concepts in astronomy and physics as the starting point of her thinking and exploration of form. Recently, she has been working on a group of paintings using print and computer techniques, which will be on view in her exhibition at Minus Space in Brooklyn titled We Can Build You, (February 15 – March 23, 2013). This foray into reproduced imagery, mediated imagery represents a departure from the working methodology for which she has become known. Linda Francis welcomed Brooklyn Rail editor at large Ben La Rocco to her upstate studio to discuss these and related matters.
Ben La Rocco (Rail): It seems your interest in science preceded your interest in art. You said to me in the past that you read physics the way one would read philosophy. Can you talk a little bit about when that started?
Linda Francis: When I look back it occurs to me that I was visualizing physics too, as opposed to reading it, because of what I do now.
Rail: What was it then? What were you reading in the ’60s when you were a student at Hunter College and afterwards in the ’70s?
Francis: I was most interested in trigonometry, which is mathematics, but there is a relationship between trig and physics and astronomy. I started to take serious biology, then stopped. I got really interested in art through philosophy. I remember I took a couple courses in philosophy, reading Wittgenstein and thinking that it was something purely visual.
Rail: Do you remember specifically what that was in Wittgenstein? I know he says there are certain things that the mind cannot describe——
Francis: In language. What was shocking to me was the reputation of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicous. I thought to myself, “This is not verbal.” I think he was making that point—the Blue and Brown Books bore that out. I was reading it a totally different way than it was being taught. It was true with math too. I did it my own way starting in high school and that was recognized by my teachers as being okay. I’m good at understanding systems.
Rail: So then math, then thought and physics could each be perceived as a kind of a system. Then painting could also be thought of in that way—do you perceive it that way? That doesn’t quite jibe with your painting to me. You’ve always seemed to have a very broad scope to your thinking but your painting is always very focused and it may not be that we can describe how that happens, but I’m curious.
Francis: I really see my painting as conjecture. I ask myself a question. So the question is: “How come something changes in every state that it’s in; and how does it look when it changes?” If it goes from a gas to a solid, to a block, to this, to that, if it goes faster or slower, if it could be one thing that looks like something in one stage and completely different in another, how could you do that with paint?
Rail: So the questions generally address some kind of condition you observe in nature.
Francis: Yes, My favorite book in the ’60s was David Bohm and Louis de Broglie’s Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. It expanded my mind in one big blow.
Rail: And the answers come in visual form. So let’s take an example from your painting “The Square and the Tortoise” (2001). What was the question that you posed to reach that answer?
Francis: The question was Zeno’s Paradox itself. I always thought it was funny and more than that, all of my work talks about impossibility. So the tortoise gets a head start and goes a certain distance. By the time Achilles gets to the place where the tortoise was, the tortoise has already moved ahead. If they are going at a constant speed will Achilles ever catch the tortoise? So I decided to configure the painting to ask if one diminishes the radius of a circle by infinitely parsing it in relation to its size will it eventually become a straight line as it travels across the surface to the edge? Yes it will, and Achilles will, but it’s not apparent how that could happen. The only thing that makes it apparent is when it’s graphed and then one can see how it’s possible.
Rail: So it’s a visual form?
Francis: A form in time that was hidden, until made visual. That’s not the way people think. If you look at a watch you’re not really thinking about time and space—no—you’re thinking about the hands of the clock or the LED lights. You’re not Einstein in the tram watching the clock go around while you’re moving. That’s how he gets there. He gets to the theory of special relativity because he is the moving body that’s passing the clock, so the clock is showing you time in one very linear sense, and he’s physically moving in space. That’s how he thinks! I mean it just kills me because it’s so real; it’s exactly what happens and how people’s minds really work. And if everybody knew that, we would be much smarter than we are: your body tells you what your life is.
Rail: Would you say that this is a version of the mind-body dilemma and the way that painting bridges that?
Francis: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. I think that is the kick that people get when they paint because your entire mind and body are unified at that moment. That’s the reason I hate when people revile thinking.
Rail: Because painting is a kind of thinking.
Francis: Of course it is. But you can’t paint if you don’t think. I mean if you don’t think you’re not alive.
Rail: I can think of some potential exceptions to that rule.
Francis: Hyperbole [laughs], but the Einstein thing is so interesting. It’s the state of mind that he was in. His awareness was really right there and so focused. That’s an opening and you know how that is when you paint: time opens like that and you’re gone. I can imagine that moment for him was fantastic because his mind and his body were totally in sync in every sense of the term.
Rail: So this thing that we call painting and art is just our particular need of approaching this state that is common to many other disciplines that are at their best when used to further our knowledge of the world and define what we’re doing here.
Francis: Anything is potentially creative energy. Where you focus it is where you get the creation. So painting will do it if you are able to focus in visual ways so the energy gets used for that, for painting. It’s definitely a unity and from that unity all the pieces click together and the mind opens. It’s like the tumblers on the safe in the movies with the thief listening carefully. I love when they do that.
Rail: You spent some years just drawing right?
Francis: 10 years.
Rail: When did that start?
Francis: In 1979 I did a painting show at Hal Bromm that had some drawings in it, and the drawings were the beginning of my starting to look at arabesques. It was three or four big paintings: a blue one, a red one, that’s how I do things, “Let’s do a red one or let’s do a blue one.” I didn’t do a yellow one.
Rail: Why did you do it that way?
Francis: There was absolutely no program. Just to see what it would look like. What kind of blue would it be?
Rail: If the paintings are answers to certain questions, what would the variation in color represent? An adjustment to the answer?
Francis: That’s why I gave up painting at that time because I didn’t understand how I could do it then. They looked good but to me they didn’t mean a lot. They got a very nice review by Carrie Rickey in Artforum and people took it seriously.
Rail: Was this your first painting show in the city?
Francis: The first real painting show I did at Hal Bromm that was in 1979, I did an earlier show at Hal’s in ’77 and that was my first solo show but only drawings.
Rail: So these were the first paintings in which you stated your conundrum.
Francis: Yeah, I had been trying to make paintings but failing, I thought. I said, “Maybe I’m trying to do something that painting wasn’t meant for.” I had begun thinking about the problems that I still think about and I realized that they didn’t have color and the color seemed so arbitrary to me. So, even though they looked good—you can make anything look good—they didn’t satisfy me. But they had a certain feel, lots of paint on them.
Rail: What was missing?
Francis: What was missing was the revelation I needed to get. And they were too much “objects” for me. So I didn’t understand the format. When I was discovering certain forms they didn’t mean the same thing in painting as in drawing. I always worked on paper, I even made paintings on paper. Then I realized that my ideas were too much like things that never existed. There wasn’t the info around that there is today, so this was really uncharted territory. There was one book on fractals. It was Benoit B. Mandelbrot whose book came out two years before, that’s all. So there was nothing there and I was reading anything I could find. Edwin Hubble’s Atlas of Galaxies was the only thing I could find that had pictures of spiral galaxies. What somebody once wrote about me was that they wondered why I called a certain drawing a type of “nebula.” I did because that’s what they were called then. Spiral galaxies were not called galaxies.
Rail: So you were trying to describe certain things about geometry and patterns you were seeing in the universe, actually. I know you worked with a very particular type of hard charcoal.
Francis: No, lecturer’s chalk. Real crap.
Rail: Oh, but you like it for its black?
Francis: Its color.
Rail: They don’t make it anymore?
Francis: They make it but it’s not the same. They took the carbon out. The company probably went public. So now it’s very gray.
Rail: So you worked with that particular type of chalk and eraser for 10 years? I’m curious to know how that medium addressed itself to the situation you were in with your work.
Francis: I could think in it. I used the chalk as mass. I’m saying mass and form are the same thing. So I used this chalk as mass and it in fact had a mass, very thick and rich; you could see it. Then I used an eraser to act upon the mass as a force would do. The idea was that I could move around this positive mass with a negative force because when I looked at these pictures of spiral galaxies, that’s what the movement was, but the revelation to me was that you could see the force by the form that was taken by something that was not the force. I had done some bigger drawings analyzing my own movement, you know those are pretty well documented. After that was when I found these spirals and realized the spiral was what my motion was. The spiral was going out and coming back like the tide and that’s the gesture of a person.
Rail: So you worked with that for 10 years, moving outward from spirals?
Francis: Spirals, chance, and organization that was on a curve.
Rail: When I start to think about space that way, that’s where I can link it to your paintings, as a kind of continuous space, within what appears to be a flat surface. This makes me think of two paintings in particular. They were two diamond shaped paintings, with a kind of frieze working around the outside of them. The frieze was a kind of continuous topology. Two loops that camouflaged themselves in time.
Francis: Well they reverse, on each other. They are the same thing. I have no idea how to describe it.
Rail: I remember you describing how those paintings worked at the time. When were those paintings made? Roughly 10 years ago?
Francis: Yeah. They’re called “Right/Left.” They’re forms that I’ve used before actually, but every time I use them it’s done differently. It turns out to be a turning square, that is, each side of the square points in a different direction. But these particular ones are built on a conjunction of two ellipses. To me, what was interesting about it was to show a sort of reversibility, left hand and right. So that on one surface, everything was going clockwise. And on the other, everything was going counterclockwise. They’re spatial lies. I think few people get it, that it’s a kind of joke. Humor is really important; it really can be more true than other things.
Rail: Let’s talk about the work you are preparing for your exhibition at Minus Space in March.
Francis: I’m trying to do things that are somehow a combination of something physiological and something geometric. I’m working with images from the skin of one of the shuttle spacecrafts that failed in the ’90s. Microscopic scale. It’s from the heat shield that broke down. At the time, a friend of mine was working with NASA on fixing that problem. He was doing the electron microscopy of the skin of the heat shield. And he sent me this little Xerox, and said you know, “I saw this, and I thought of your work.” And I thought this guy was too stiff to ever see my work in any real way! And the fact is, he really got it. And not only that, but he sent me something that I’ve used since then.
Rail: Is that the component of what you called the physiological?
Francis: Yes. I like it because of the way it looks. It is the surface of something metallic. It’s a crystal formation. But at the same time, it looks like a biological membrane with points on it. In architecture the outer cladding of a building is called a “skin.” And I keep thinking that any skin might look like that. So I play with it, and I do things like take the skin and I overlay it with itself a few times. Then I get different interference patterns. So I make this bunch of works, very simply organized, overlaid once, then twice, three times. And then it looks three different ways. And the funny thing about it is when you blow this thing up—this is what’s so great about painting—when you make it into an image or when it’s big enough, it becomes something that looks like it’s from a microscope on the one hand, but all of a sudden on the other hand, it becomes materially real. So you think of it as body-like, or relating to the self. And the reason you do, I think, is because the things we make are the things we are. So the things that work naturally, the organizations that work naturally, the way we see things, the way things function, are all related. And they’re all things that are discoveries of natural organization.
Rail: Are you saying that when something appears to work visually or compositionally or conceptually, in a work of art—it’s because it’s tapping into self?
Francis: Yes, that’s a tough thing to say. But yes.
Rail: Some concept or structure that does describe our condition? Is that what we call truth or untruth?
Francis: I have the feeling that’s right. I think it’s like Einstein refusing to believe that there would be chance. I think it’s the same.
Rail: So that when we are casting about, making a painting, we’re actually looking for something very specific. We don’t know what it is, but we know it when we find it.
Francis: How can you not draw those conclusions? How can you not, when you see Fibonacci numbers, and you see the relationship, you see the goal and means, you see all these things that are in the same proportion to each other. Everyone says, “I like that.” And you say, “But why do you like it?” What is taste anyway? Art looks for truth. And I don’t mean it to be simplistic, I don’t think it is. The Kahbalah is the right kind of thinking. It says that between every word is an entire universe. That’s right. That’s a fractal idea. And a psychological one—the way the mind works.
Rail: That’s a beautiful thought. What comes next in your process?
Francis: I digitize the images then I see all this other stuff happening on the computer—fantastic—and what’s fantastic about it is that I get the computer noise: the stuff on the computer that wasn’t there in the image. So in a certain sense it became a brush to me. So here, this image started to have things that were there because of the tool that I was using and I really love seeing this invisible stuff that I never knew existed. So I decide to incorporate it into the image. It’s a structure, you know. The closer you look at it the more you realize it’s an on/off structure. There are sort of substructures that happen. Certain kinds of rectangles, certain types of squares, certain kinds of dots. I’m not just talking about pixels, but things that happen to build up to other patterns.
Rail: So what you’ve done in your new work is to start to adopt certain techniques that you wouldn’t have used in the prior work.
Francis: Not in painting. I’ve used it in drawing.
Rail: I see that now, and it seems like this new work, and your drawings, are evocative of imagery in a way that your paintings aren’t.
Francis: Um. I guess so. I think that’s true. Its very funny, because these are more mechanically made, I can’t make these by hand. They are silkscreened at a studio. And that results in lots of different things, some that happen in the process that I will allow because I like them. In other words, there’s a very similar kind of ability to have an accident occur that one could use. I mean, it’s true in any medium. It’s true in the computer. This whole thing is based on accident actually.
Rail: So is this a system you can’t understand?
Francis: Yes, basically. Because I think I do understand it. I’ve been doing it long enough to see sort of what’s happening, but I can’t predict it. I can’t predict that I will get this if I do that. It doesn’t always work like that.
Rail: And what about any implications of the system?
Francis: It’s amazing. But in another sense, too, one feels with brushes a kind of—oh God, I don’t know if I should say. [Both laugh.]
Rail: Oh no, say it!
Francis: One feels that the brush is really sort of prehistoric.
Rail: We’ve got you on record now. [Both laughing.]
Francis: It’s not a question of not loving the brush; it’s a question of seeing how it operates.
Rail: It’s part of what’s essential about the brush. I don’t think this conversation is about what tool to use. I’m interested in what the relationship between these two tools—the computer and the brush—is for you. What the revelation has been. I know it’s not about obsolescence.
Francis: No. It’s not. The computer allows me to magnify the underlying structure. I’m pulling it to the surface and I’m saying, here’s an underlying structure. Take what you will from it. In fact you can’t take much from it, I mean, you can’t use it. And that’s so interesting to me. To get to something that can’t be parsed or used, that is purely aesthetic—it’s something that sort of ripples over your nerves.
Rail: Subtlety is unimportant?
Francis: Totally unimportant. Subtlety occurs by itself. It’s a byproduct of your interaction with your material. It’s not something that you can make. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, just that I’m looking at touch the same way I’m looking at subject. So the thing that happens when you make an object of art is that you bring all this stuff that’s normally invisible to the surface, including the touch, including the signature. But that’s not the subject, you see? I think that everybody thinks that is the subject—even you think it’s the subject! [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s the subject. Or let’s put it this way: the better you get, the less it’s the subject. That’s what I think. The more you, yourself become dissolved, you are dissolved into this. There is no you, there’s nothing like that.
I don’t know what I’m going to do afterwards with this work. Every show I do is usually because I was thinking about a bunch of things. And in this show I was thinking about this image, and I was thinking about, frankly, all of our failures in the face of the universe, [laughs]. The shuttle failed and—god, as a species we have so much hubris, it’s terrible—
Rail: It is.
Francis: But I felt lost in these images, I just felt overwhelmed. And so these works are not very pretty, I guess. They’re kind of harsh.
Rail: I think that’s part of their interest.
Francis: Well, I’m not interested in making nice things. I never was.